THE GULF • by A. F. White

Thank you for helping me with my term paper, she tells me.

We are seated in the middle of a busy bookstore café. I look at her and tell her the truth, that it was my pleasure and that I was glad I could help.

She smiles, sips some coffee.

I am hypnotized by her dark, brown eyes, and have been since we first met six weeks ago in this same café. Since then we’ve been inseparable as I’ve helped her navigate the intricacies of the English language.

I ask her where she goes from here.

Now I go home, she says, to my husband. I miss him so much, she tells me, and I miss my family.

These words hurt, but I know they shouldn’t.

She talks about her home and what it is like there. I listen intently. I want to know everything there is to know about her and her life. She doesn’t like how things are back in her country and wishes things were different, but I know she feels obligated to return.

I can’t take my eyes off her. She is so beautiful, although I can only see a small part of her beauty. The rest is covered by a soft purple, pink and blue hijab — as beautiful as her penetrating eyes. Her skin, from what I can see, is flawless and reflects the cafe light like the fading evening sun. I want to tell her that I’ve fallen in love with her, that I want her to stay with me, but I hold back, knowing that expressing my love for her can never end well; regardless of how she responds.

She’s younger than me, but I don’t know by how much. Her Facebook page shows a picture of her husband holding their two-year-old daughter. He looks happy. She looks happy. I don’t want to ruin that, but part of me doesn’t care. My own life has been ruined by other men — why can’t I be on the other side for a change? I think about it, but know that’s not who I am. I know what it’s like to be a divorced father and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, including the husband of the woman I love.

She continues on about what it’s like to be a woman in her homeland. I listen, but wonder why she would even want to return. She answers my question without my asking, as if she’s answering it for herself, talking herself into going back.

It’s not bad everywhere, she tells me, just in some places.

I mutter a few encouraging words about change from the inside, but I’m just trying to be polite. I really want to shout out, asking her why the hell she would want to return and why she would want that kind of life for her daughter. But I don’t. I hold back. Besides, I already know the answer. She is going back for her husband.

I am lucky to be offered such a prestigious position, she tells me. Women don’t get jobs like those very often. She takes another sip of coffee. I think about what she said. She is going to be a school principal. I think of all the school principals I know and most of them are women. She can find a job here, I tell myself. I don’t tell her.

We talk for a while about Arab-American relations, especially after 9/11. I try not to fly, she tells me, because it is a hassle. I am often pulled out of line and searched, she explains. I’ve known her for only six weeks, but know in my heart she would never harm anyone; I find myself apologizing for the behavior of my countrymen.

She looks at the time. I have to go, she says. I have to pick up my daughter from the babysitter.

My stomach clenches, but I am brave. I thank her again for her business and wish her luck. I don’t want her to go. I don’t want this to be the end, but I know it is.

We walk out together and I want so badly to reach out and hold her hand, but I don’t. We face each other outside and I know this is good-bye. For good.

I tell her that if things were different, that if she were staying longer, I’d like to get to know her better. I wonder if I see tears in her eyes, but don’t have the time to look. She embraces me in a soft hug, a hug that lingers past the point of a cordial farewell.

A. F. White is a freelance writer/instructional designer living and working in the St Louis area. He has written for companies like GMAC, Edward Jones, and AmerenUE. His work has appeared in Creative Training Techniques, St. Louis Suburban Journals, Every Day Fiction, and Creative Catechist. His short story, “Seeing Sarah,” is available through Amazon for a mere pittance.

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  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    In the context of this story, I think it unlikely that the woman’s in-laws would have allowed her to take her daughter with her while the husband remained at home. They would have used subtle-to-outright blackmail to ensure her good behavior and return.

    It’s also a bit disconcerting that she continues to wear hijab–without being chaperoned by family–but feels free enough to actually embrace an unrelated man. A woman who wanted to act freely would more likely discard hijab to do so–because wearing it is a constant reminder of religious restrictions. The writing was excellent but I found the whole set-up unconvincing.

  • SarahT

    Nice slice of life piece.

    The paragraph that talks about her principal position is a bit confusing (the “I” messed me up).

  • Tina Wayland

    I loved the rhythm of this. It was engrossing–it held my hand and led me along. I was pulled in with the first sentence.

    I didn’t have a problem with the woman in the story. She’s in a new country, and may have felt a little bit more free to act out what she felt. I was a little surprised that her daughter was with her, but I suppose it’s possible. No two people live the same lives, even when their religion constrains them.

    Excellent stuff.

  • AF White

    Just to clarify about the woman and her child. The character is based on someone I knew. Both her and her husband were living and studying in the states together but he finished up early and headed home to accept a new position. I think they had been living in the states for several years and their daughter was actually born here.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the great feedback.

  • Amanda

    Very compelling short story.

  • TW

    I enjoyed the tone and rhythm very much. The descriptions were great.

    The use of first-person without quotation when she tells or explains something threw me at first like SarahT said above, as did the inconsistency about how long they have known each other (6 weeks since they met, but they’ve only known each other 2?), just enough to break the flow of an otherwise engrossing piece.

  • AF White

    The time discrepancy was the result of a last minute edit – the writer’s bane. My apologies.

  • Dana

    Really liked this story. Great sexual tension between this American man and Islamic woman. This is something that could have happened and the fact that some people can’t suspend their disbelief and enjoy a story because they have their own views about what Islamic people would or wouldn’t do is their own problem. Well written, good pacing with powerful and memorable characters. I give this 5 stars!

  • Kerry

    The beginning of the story flows well and pulls you in as you get a kernel of information here and there. She’s from another country (I assumed Mexico initially), and then a few sentences later another piece of information tells you she’s Islamic. Well written throughout with great timing, Al.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    #8: In trying to understand the world of any story, a reader must go by the clues the author provides. So–many women from very conservative familes, who are compelled to veil at home, will choose to dress more liberally when in a different setting. A village woman might discard full purdah in the anonymity of a big city, depending on the degree of choice she has. An upper-class woman from Gulf-area countries might dress as a Western woman in a Western country, regardless of what she’s compelled to do back home.

    In the context of this particular story–the author has told us that the woman is almost completely veiled–in a setting where many women would consider it appropriate to just cover their hair. That’s a pretty strong indication of how restrictively she lives within her own particular family. If this is her OWN choice, then it’s surprising to me that she would touch an unrelated man. If it’s the demand of her family, then it’s surprising to me that they would allow her AND the child to remain behind.

    And all this is based not on general suppositions about what religious people would or would not do–but what the author has told us about THIS woman.

  • Dana

    #10. Then why are you reading fiction?

  • The time discrepancy has now been corrected; sorry about that.

    Everyone here is entitled to express whatever opinion s/he wishes about our stories, as long as it’s expressed courteously. Debate is great, but let’s not get into attacking each other when we don’t agree… (and please go read our Welcome Page if you’re unfamiliar with our commenting guidelines, thanks!).

  • Joanne

    I loved this. I can imagine this actually happening. Really nice writing, bittersweet, lovely.

  • Nicely written.

    And what an excellent title with the double-meaning on ‘Gulf’.

  • Jim

    Paul (#14) said exactly what I was thinking–nice double usage for the word Gulf.

    I thought the inner dialog of the man was very well done. the reader gets quite a bit of information in a short space. And I loved the line about whether he sees a tear: just wishful thinking? or is there something…?

    Nicely done.

  • Well written. This is a case where what is not written is actually more important than what is. Their longing transcends the words, and that’s an achievement any author can be proud of. Good job. Can’t wait to read more of your work.

  • Linda S

    Very well written. I could visualize the scene very well and could feel the emotion. That is exactly what a reader should do. I would love to see more from this author.

  • Great flow. I really believed in the characters, and agree with Linda S’s (#17’s) comments. Very talented author.

  • Kathy Joyce Glascott

    Lovely simple and touching.